The Grand Mosque in Brussels at the centre of a storm

The Grand Mosque in Brussels has found itself at the centre of a story of storm of protest on two fronts.

First came a Belgian parliamentary report on “Islamic radicalism: The Grand Mosque of Brussels in the Dock”. One of the areas under investigation was the role of the Grand Mosque and Cultural Islamic Centre in Brussels which, said Brussels based rights activist Willy Fautre, give “real cause for concern.”

Secondly, Belgian Federal migration minister Theo Francken has appealed to Belgium’s supreme administative court to overturn a decision that allows the imam of Brussels’ Great Mosque to stay in the country.

Francken wants the Council of State to rule against Belgium’s Foreign Disputes Council, which this week concluded that Abdelhadi Sewif’s residency permit should not be withdrawn because there was a lack of evidence that he posed a serious threat to society.

The migration minister announced last month that Sewif’s permission to stay in Belgium would be revoked, claiming security services had “very clear” signals that “he is a follower of Salafism, radicalised, very conservative and dangerous to our society and our national security”. Francken said: “We are sure of our facts, Salafists are not welcome. Whatever he may claim, we have reliable intelligence from security experts.”

Fautre,director of HRWF, speaking last week, said the parliamentary inquiry into the Brussels attacks had criticised the mosque authorities for refusing to register it under Belgian law. The results of an investigation by the Belgian parliament into the twin terrorist atrocity which killed 31 and injured 250 in Brussels left question marks against the mosque he concluded.

Back in March 2016, Brussels was hit by a double terrorist attempt in which 31 people lost their lives and more than 250 were injured.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the Belgian federal parliament put in place a parliamentary inquiry commission which delivered four intermediary reports. The first three reports published on 3rd August 2016, 4th May 2017 and 15th June 2017 dealt with the various aspects of the management of the crisis on the day of the attacks, the assistance to victims during and after the crisis, and an analysis of the security architecture.

The 4th intermediary report (205 pages) published on 23rd October 2017 addressed a number of issues

The second chapter of the last intermediary parliamentary report questions the role of the Grand Mosque of Brussels. The mosque occupies a corner in parc cinquantenaire but real questions are now being asked about its future.

First of all, though, some historical context is worthwhile.

In 1968 Belgium recognized the Islamic and Cultural Centre (ICC) as the representative platform of the Muslims and Islam of Belgium.

One year later, the Belgian government signed a convention granting the ICC, then represented by the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the use of a building (that the Grand Mosque of Belgium [GMB] now occupies) for 99 years.

 In 1978, the new Islamic and Cultural Center of Belgium (CICB) was inaugurated, taking over the role of the ICC. The building complex now accommodates not only the Grand mosque but also a school, and a research and training centre on Islam and the Arabic language.

For years the Grand Mosque of Brussels has been accused of propagating Wahhabism and Salafism in Belgium.

In its fourth intermediary report, the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission writes that it first heard Mr. Galaye N’Diaye, the GMB imam, and Mr. Jamel Saleh Momenah, director of the Cultural Islamic Centre of Brussels (CICB).

According to Fautre as they did not know any of the Belgian national languages, they expressed themselves in English during the hearing. Both of them denied being Wahhabis or Salafists.

The GMB imam noted that he was teaching Salaf Islam, the doctrine of the first three generations of Islam, but not Salafism, another current which led to the movements in Saudi Arabia… He claimed that he was preaching a moderate Islam.

Other actors and experts heard by the commission shared a different view about the activities of the GMB, says Fautre.

“There was a consensus among them to say that the Islam promoted by the GMB and the CICB is from the Wahhabi-Salafist current with a strong influence of the worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood. The doctrine of the Wahhabi-Salafists is literalist in its interpretation of the sacred texts, extremely normative culturally and exclusivist concerning other visions of Islam,” he said. “Their conception of Islam refuses any compromise and claims total engagement of their adherents. It rejects “the others” who do not share it and creates a ghetto mentality”. 

It rejects Sufism, the saints’ worship, esoteric currents, the juridical schools and doctrines that have their own particularities in the interpretation of the Quran. The Wahhabi-Salafist project has political objectives at the national and international level. In Belgium it aims to unify the various Sunni communities around their interpretation of Islam.”

Concerning the respect of human rights, the representatives of the GMB and the CICB answered “Obviously, we will always respect Belgian laws. This has always been one of our priorities.” 

However, when asked about the compatibility between the Cairo Declaration (asserting the supremacy of the sharia) and the European Convention on human rights, they said they did not know the European Convention but they would examine it without any delay.

However, according to experts heard by the commission, the rejection of certain universal values is consubstantial with the Islam taught by that mosque as, by definition, they rely on the divine laws from which sharia proceeds.

According to the GMB/CICB representatives, their teachers come from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Senegal, and Gambia, amongst other places. They train future theologians, not imams, and for those who want to study Islam in Saudi Arabia, the ambassador, who is the president of the CICB, is instrumental in providing them with a visa.

It is not difficult to imagine what sort of Islam and sharia they want to learn and will learn in Saudi Arabia before coming back to Belgium or to another EU member state.

In the past, the CICB was in charge of designating teachers for the Muslim classes in public schools in Belgium and also organized the massive distribution of writings on Islam with a radical connotation.

This has resulted in a significant impact on Islam in Belgium and on many Muslims. Since the 1990s, the Executive of the Muslims of Belgium (EMB), the official interlocutor of the Belgian state, has been in charge of the Muslim religion classes in public schools.

The GMB and the CICB continue to play a key role in the life of many Muslims in Belgium. The permits issued to those who slaughter animals for religious purposes, the registration of conversions to Islam, and the distribution of grants are still among the privileged competences that the GMB and CICB hold.

The average annual budget of the CICB/GMB for the last four years was approximately €1,433,000 (which does not include donations in nature): 65% to 75% of their budget comes from the controversial World Islamic League (WIL) which has its seat in Saudi Arabia and whose Secretary General is the former Minister of Justice of Saudi Arabia.

Last but not least, the GMB has never asked to be officially recognized by the Belgian State.  Fautre concludes: “This unwillingness raises a number of concerns among the members of the Belgian Parliament as many areas in its activities remain opaque and outside the control of the authorities.”